Wilbert Vere Awdry (1911 - 1997) was an Anglican clergyman, railway enthusiast and hugely successful children’s author who created the enduringly popular Railway Series of books and characters, including the much-loved Thomas the Tank Engine.

Awdry had just become Rector of the parish of Elsworth in 1946 when the success of his first two books led the publisher, Edmund Ward, to commission Awdry to write a new book for the Railway Series every year. He would do so for the next 24 years, writing five titles at Elsworth before moving on to serve another Cambridgeshire parish, Emneth. When Wilbert Awdry put down his pen in 1972, his son, Christopher - for whom the first stories were written - went on to write 16 more titles.

What began as a father’s stories to amuse his three year old son, in bed with measles, became a literary, publishing, merchandising and financial phenomenon. At the time of his death in 1997, Awdry’s Railway Series books had sold in the order of  50 million copies, in a dozen languages, and inspired videos, toys, games, clothes and a popular television film series. Well known narrators of the stories include Johny Morris, Willie Rushton and Ringo Starr.

Image: Rev Awdry with Ringo Starr and crew in 1984 (copyright Mattel Inc)

The success of the series is attributed to the small landscape format of the books; the striking, colourful illustrations, and the quality of Awdry’s text which captures the rhythm and repetition of rolling stock. For all their simplicity, the stories were based on real incidents: a derailment, the loss of some trucks, even a fish found in an engine’s boiler.

Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 1964, Awdry explained why railways fascinated him, giving insight into the source of his creativity: 

“Of all the mechanical contrivances made by man, the steam engine is the most human. The steam engine is an extrovert….He likes you to know how he’s getting on and how he’s feeling about things…On the move, locomotives, always have something to say.”

Wilbert was born on 15th June 1911 in Ampfield, near Romsey in Hampshire, where his father, Vere, was vicar. Wilbert’s name came from combining his father’s favourite brothers names, William and Herbert.

As a boy, Wilbert was influenced by his father’s love of railways: real and and model. He poured over his father’s copies of The Railway Magazine, and walked by the Baddesley stretch of railway line where plate-layers had their huts. The excitement when an engine or train thundered past left a deep impression.

The family moved to Wiltshire in 1917, to a house next to the Box Tunnel and the start of the Great Western line incline. Lying in bed, young Wilbert listened to the rhythmic sounds of the engine shunting trains up the incline, later drawing on this memory as inspiration for the story where Edward helps Gordon to get up the hill.

Aged 13, Wilbert went to Dauntsey School, and in 1929 was among the first intake of undergraduates at St Peter’s Hall (now St Peter’s College) at Oxford. Graduating with a third class degree in Modern History, Wilbert decided to become a parson, and spent a year at Oxford’s theological college, Wycliffe Hall. From 1933 - 1936, he taught in Jerusalem at St George’s School, fulfilling his Wycliffe tutor’s view that holding down a secular job was key preparation for being ordained.

Back from Jerusalem, and having been ordained, Awdry took up a post as deacon in Odiham, Hampshire. In 1938, he married Margaret Wale, whom he had met in Jerusalem and the following year they moved to West Lavington in Wiltshire where Awdry was appointed curate. War was looming, and there was little peace for Awdry, whose pacifist views were out of line with seniors in the diocese.

Turned out of the parish, he was offered a post by the sympathetic Bishop of Birmingham, Dr Barnes, and Wilbert and Margaret moved to King’s Norton, arriving in time for the Blitz. Their son was born in 1940, and three years later, when Christopher was in bed with measles, Awdry sought to amuse him by telling stories about a row of engines.

The stories evolved as Wilbert answered Christopher’s questions, giving each engine a name and personality. Christopher wanted to hear the stories about industrious Edward, pompous Gordon and argumentative Henry again and again, and so Awdry wrote them down, along with simple drawings.

Margaret considered them better than most children’s books available during the war and persuaded him to look for a publisher.  Awdry’s first three stories, written on scraps of paper, were sent to an agent who eventually found a publisher in Edmund Ward. Keen to redress the dearth of children’s books during the war, Ward accepted the manuscripts.

By the time the first book, The Three Railway Engines, was published, just days after VE day in May 1945, Awdry was already writing a second, in which he introduced Thomas - the most child-like of all his characters - based on a model tank engine he had made for Christopher at Christmas.

Image: Model of Thomas the Tank Engine (copyright Mattel Inc)

Edmund Ward published Thomas the Tank Engine in 1946, the year Awdry moved to Elsworth, where he would live, work and write for the next six years. By then, Wilbert and Margaret had three children: Christopher and two daughters, Veronica and Hilary. The war years had taken their toll on the upkeep of the Church, the school and the Rectory. Awdry’s first task was to make the Rectory fit for his wife and young family to live in. It was infested and primitive, with no mains water. Besides, the church was leaky.

Costs for repair and maintenance were significant, and Awdry’s attempts to make the Rectory fit for tenants to help share the costs led to tedious tangles with ecclesiastical grant-giving bodies. Besides, stepping into the shoes of the previous incumbent - who had been Rector for 19 years - was not proving easy.

An unexpected boost from his publishers was timely. Edmund Ward had hired a new editor, Eric Marriott, previously with Cambridge University Press. Marriott saw the appeal of Awdry’s first two books, with their bright illustrations and “small books for small hands” format. He challenged Ward’s plan to just reprint the first titles, insisting that there should be a new book each year. Marriott’s determination paid off, and was key in the success of the Railway Series. Awdry was offered £75 to write the next book. In Brian Sibley’s 1995 biography, The Thomas the Tank Engine Man, he recalls Rev W Awdry’s reaction to this news: “To me, this was marvellous. I couldn’t get over my amazement that a publisher should actually ask me to write a book for him!” In 1948, the year that British Railways were nationalised, James the Red Engine became the third book in the series, followed the next year by Tank Engine Thomas Again.

Although Awdry had initially parted with copyright for a flat fee, Edmund Ward offered an ex gratia payment for the fourth book of £200: a godsend for the Awdry family on their shoestring existence at Elsworth.

Image: Rev Awdry (copyright Mattel Inc)

As well as helping to pay the bills, the money enabled Awdry to invest in a model railway in one of the Rectory outbuildings. He started work, finishing just in time for the Church fete in July 1949. Admission fees went to the fete, but subsequent contributions for viewings raised money for the church in the shape of an altar frontal and an oak box for communion wafers, with an engraved plaque commemorating the support of Thomas the Tank Engine!

Awdry’s knowledge of railways and engines was considerable. From the outset, every story in the Railway Series was based on something that had actually happened to some engine, somewhere, sometime. However, his commitment to railway accuracy and authenticity in the text was not shared by the illustrators commissioned for the books. Notably, C Reginald Dalby, whose gem-like pictures first appeared in James the Red Engine and who helped to set the style for the series, had a disregard for detail which infuriated Awdry.

Inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Dalby’s illustrations led to endless correspondence from readers. Dalby’s depiction of landscape was also at odds with Awdry’s own ideas of a sense of place where his stories were set. This led Wilbert, with his brother George, to invent a new setting for the stories: the fictitious Island of Sodor. The brothers made maps and wrote a detailed history of the island, its people and railway engines, which helped shape many of the events described in later volumes.

Awdry's enthusiasm for railways was not limited to his books. He built and exhibited ambitious model railways around the country and was involved in railway preservation societies, such as the TalyLlyn Railway in Wales, which inspired the Skarloey Railway on the Island of Sodor, and featured in Four Little Engines (1955) and The Little Old Engine (1959).

Margaret died in 1989, and Wilbert’s health began to decline. The Reverend was awarded an Order of the British Empire in the 1996 New Year's Honours List. He died peacefully in Stroud, Gloucestershire on 21st March 1997 at the age of 85.

Awdry Blue Plaque

In December 2020 a blue plaque was installed on the barn of the Old Rectory on Church Lane, Elsworth, next to where Awdry lived and wrote and next to The Holy Trinity Church where he served. The plaque was unveiled by the Revd Nigel di Castiglione, the current Rector. Elsworth Village Primary School took part in the celebration and pupils produced hand-drawn pictures which were displayed in the church. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic Awdry's daughter Veronica was unable to attend but a letter from her was read out at the event in which she said "I am delighted and moved at the news that a Blue Plaque has been put up in tribute to my father, the man who wrote the stories about Thomas and engines with personalities, but who was also, most importantly, a very dedicated and hardworking Rector."

We are very grateful to global toy company Mattel for sponsoring this plaque (Mattel are the owners of Thomas the Tank Engine brand) and to the owners of the barn for allowing the plaque to be installed on their property. We are also very grateful to the teachers and pupils of Elsworth Primary School for their artwork and all those people who's efforts made this plaque happen.